The Yakuza series is one of the best in video games. Sad thing is, given their delayed localisation work and reputation for being a little...different, they're also largely ignored by the wider gaming public. I'd love it if that could change.
I've been playing Yakuza 5 this week, and I can totally understand why so many people would at first instinct ignore this release. For one, it's a PS3 game; many people, myself included, moved on from their last-gen console a while ago, and it's a little jarring to venture back into the world of slow-arse game saves and janky textures.
Then there's the matter of the game's age. Why was Yakuza 5 released (at least in the West) on the PS3 in late 2015? Because it was originally released in Japan in 2012. Nothing like playing a 2012 game for the first time in 2015 to remind you how far PlayStation games (or even Yakuza games) have come in the three years since.
Then there's the obstacles the Yakuza series itself throws up. This is a long-running series with a continuous story, telling the tale of Kazuma Kiryu, his gangster buddies and the Tojo clan they're a part of. It's a weird series, combining a number of different gameplay systems, and it also makes you sit through hours of cutscenes with often little action in between.
So I can kind of understand why so many folks are unaware of the series' quality, and unprepared to give it a try. And yet...I also think a lot of people's avoidance is built on some unfair misconceptions of what Yakuza games are, and what they really excel at. So let's tackle some of that head-on.
"THEY'RE OPEN WORLD GAMES, AREN'T THEY?"
No. I'm not quite sure where this mistake first cropped up — maybe it was during the marketing for the first two games in the series — but the Yakuza games are not "open world" games. If you sit down with these expecting Grand Theft Auto, you will be sorely disappointed. While the Yakuza games do feature large urban spaces that you're free to wander around in, they're nowhere near the scale of a proper open world title, nor do they have much of the interactivity you'd expect, with only some stores and the ever-present danger of being ambushed for a streetfight breaking up your strolls. Instead, think of Yakuza's world as a neon-lit RPG overworld, and you'll be much closer to the mark.
"I'LL NEVER CATCH UP ON THAT STORY"
Wrong! While it's true that the story of the Yakuza series continues from game to game, the series actually does a very good job of setting the scene for newer players by explaining key backstory concepts during early dialogue sequences and cutscenes. And if you want to dig deeper, every game since Yakuza 3 has included a recap mode in the main menu, which lets you watch cutscene packages explaining the story so far.
"ALL THEY DO IS TALK!"
Well...yes. This is a series that's very heavy on dialogue. Much of it is skippable small-talk though, coming in the form of in-game conversations you can blow past by jamming the X button. The stuff you can't (or won't want to) skip is normally presented as a cutscene, and it's excellent! Really. Probably the best thing about the Yakuza games is that they're a giant soap opera about cartoon gangsters. If you love a good, trashy story in your video games, there are few better than Yakuza. If you don't, well, there's always...
"SO WHAT DO YOU ACTUALLY DO?"
You punch people. A lot of people. Aside from all the talking (and some occasional minigame diversions), the bulk of actual gameplay in the Yakuza series comes in two forms: walking around city streets running errands (or travelling between missions) and beating the shit out of street thugs and rival gangsters. Sometimes this happens at random on city streets, sometimes it happens inside buildings on missions, but regardless of the setting, combat is always the same: an inescapable arena is drawn around you, and you have to keep fighting until everyone else is knocked out.
Combat in Yakuza is fantastic. It's quick, it's deep and, best of all, it's bloody as hell. Few dedicated brawlers can match Yakuza's sheer physicality when it comes to putting expensive leather shoes to a guy's face. Between the copious amounts of blood, the sound effects and the way you can use giant props and weapons from your surrounds, Yakuza's fighting is guaranteed to make you wince.
"AND THAT'S IT?"
Well, no. Another big appeal among Yakuza fans is the way the game is one of the best in the world at virtual tourism. While some aspects of Yakuza games are larger than life, the majority of the games are grounded in reality so deeply that it's a wonder you've never had to do your in-game taxes.
Everything in the Yakuza games is just...mundane. Convenience stores aren't caricatures (like food outlets are in, say, Grand Theft Auto), they're just actual convenience stores, where you can buy actual branded Japanese food and snacks. There are department stores. Sega arcades. Noodle joints.
A good example of how bizarrely real the Yakuza games are can be found early on in Yakuza 5. In between apocalyptic street fights and wacky street races with drifting Toyota Crowns, you begin Yakuza 5 employed as a taxi driver. You wake up in the morning in your apartment, walk all the way to your office, check in, take a job, get in your car and drive. And when you drive, you need to do it properly. You need to stick to the speed limit, stop at stop signs, indicate before turning and even make smalltalk with your customers.
It's an insane contrast, but then, that's a key part of Yakuza's appeal. For ten years now the series has walked a fine line between realistic soap opera and batshit crazy brawler, and for the most part it's somehow succeeded. By walling off the areas of its design — conversations are framed very differently from combat, which looks or feels nothing like pedestrian sections — Yakuza has quarantined its disparate elements into something wonderfully cohesive, an experience that's far greater than the sum of its ageing and janky parts.
Yakuza 5 is out now on the PS3, and given everything I've just said, is as good a place to start as any. I haven't played anywhere near enough of it for a review, but it follows the same structure (and even most of the same characters) as Yakuza 4, which I liked very much.
If you've already parted with your PS3 — or just don't want to go back — that's totally understandable. Just keep in mind what I've said here and revisit it when Yakuza Zero, a bombastic prequel game that's on PS4 (and looks much prettier), is released in the West (and yes, it's confirmed for 2016).